Wednesday, April 19, 2017

"Other girls will judge them."

It's important to pay attention to what actually happens and to pay attention to what actually gets said. The quote above comes from a CBC story about a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends. Let me repeat that, "a girl who sent naked selfies to a boy who later shared them around with his friends"; a boy shared pictures she sent to him with other boys and yet the damaging consequence was that "other girls" judged her.

Isn't moral psychology interesting?

Here's the way the CBC sets up the story:
When she sent selfies of her partially naked body, she thought only her boyfriend would see the images. 
The teenager never imagined one of the sexually explicit photos would end up being shared with five other boys in a Dropbox account.
"Partially naked body" means she sent him a picture of her breasts. The CBC is worried you'll enjoy it too much if they're upfront (if you'll pardon the expression) about this.

Here's how she explains how the boy convinced her to send photos:
"Basically [he] threatened to break up with me if I didn't send him pictures. I was young and naive and just sent them, and then that's what he did with it," she said. "I just think he's a pig."
There's a lot of equivocation in that quote. "Basically" here means that he did things that she now interprets as manipulative threats. Just how explicit these threats were is not clear. We also don't know how she interpreted them at the time.

 Here's the moral lesson she has drawn from her experience:
"Other girls will judge them, make them feel bad about themselves, make them feel like a slut for sending the picture, for trusting the person. It hurts self-esteem and it makes it hard for people to trust each other."
She wants it to be possible for people "to trust each other." That is to say, she wants to live in a  world where it's safe for girls to send nude selfies. (By the way, we should notice that while her identity is kept from us, as it should be, one of the consequences of this case being reported in the media is that every single kid at her high school knows who she is. I suspect almost everybody in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia knows who she is. She has two choices: leave town or be stuck with the identity this has given her for the rest of her life. As offensive as this thought will be to some, she'd be better of if the five boys had gotten away with it. That's why kids don't tell their parents about things like this.)

Many (but not all) teenage girls fantasize about someone seeing them naked and a surprising number will arrange to have it happen. They want to have it happen but they don't want it to be their responsibility. Boys, meanwhile, will try to trick or pressure girls into letting them see them naked. The two desires tend to play into one another. The fact that the boys are trying to manipulate the girls into doing this makes it easier for the girls to believe it's not really their responsibility when this happens. It also makes it easier for everyone involved to limit how far things go—most teenagers want to play with fire.

That neither surprises nor depresses me. I still have fond memories of Barb who, at age 17, walked into the room where her brother and I were talking and accidentally-on-purpose let her terrycloth robe fall open. She did this not because she was interested in me; she probably held me in contempt. It would have felt like riding a roller coaster to her—like something that was calculated-to-scare-her-but-was-actually-very-safe. And it was.

If you want to get depressed, stop and think a bit about how this instinct that so many teenage girls have would have worked out for most of human history.

So, what's the lesson here? That we should stop trusting others? To some extent, yes, that is the lesson. That said, living in a world where there is no trust would be horrible. The better lesson is that trust is only possible within strict limits. To use the current jargon, you have to set boundaries. What that current jargon leaves out is that you have to set boundaries on yourself as well as others. To use the old and better jargon, good fences make good neighbours. My fence keeps your livestock away from my garden but it also keeps my livestock out of yours.

(If the only reason you set boundaries is to protect yourself from others, you're a narcissist. And if you advise others to set boundaries only as a way of protecting themselves by controlling others, you're teaching them to be narcissists. The boundary game only works if both sides have an interest in it.)

Notice that the girl quoted by the CBC doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her. She blames the boy, as she should. She doesn't really blame the other girls who judged her because she sees that as a consequence of his betrayal more than something that is the judging-girls' fault.

She may be just a naive teenager but she has a deep understanding of the praxis of high school life. Mean girls slut-shame girls who are willing to go further sexually than they are. She's willing to live with that and most other girls will also go along with the mean girls. It's a way girls can vote girls who threaten them by going too far off the island. The same thing happens to the most prudish girls on the other end of the scale. Every high school girl recognizes that there have to be limits and every high school girl also recognizes that no one is going to be able to have any fun at all if adults get to set the limits. At the same time, it takes someone brave and strong to step up into the role of setting limits and most high school students aren't brave and strong. The only people willing to do that are bullies, enter the mean girls. Crazy as it may seem to us, most teenagers trust bullies to make important moral decisions for them. (Note to busybodies: this is why anti-bullying campaigns will always fail.)

But this girl also wants something else. She wants a secret space she can sneak away to and interact with boys. She wasn't really surprised to find out this boy was, in her words, "a pig". She was counting on that. What really surprised her was that the shame of being such a pig as to ask her for these photos wasn't enough to make him keep the secret to himself. She thought of it as a secret they shared—the basis of the trust she sought was that both of them would be equally afraid of "their" secret getting out.

The key point here is that when she says she wants "people to trust each other" (for that is the implicit message she is sending), what she really wants is to have enclaves where the ordinary rules don't apply and yet remain safe; places where people can sneak away and do things that they will be so ashamed of they will keep these things forever secret. At heart, she's a Victorian.

What's taken that Victorian world away from her is that everyone now has a camera in their pocket. Before that, there was plausible deniability. If I'd been a heel and gone back to school the next day and told everyone that Barb had flashed me, she could have denied it and just about everyone would have believed her.

Notice the subject header again. It's dangerous in teen eyes because the whole world might find out. At the same time, the risk is what makes it fun. Every kid who ever jumped off a roof into a swimming pool knew it was dangerous but none of of them ever thought they were going to end up in a wheelchair. Let's not kid ourselves, tens of thousands of girls and women will send erotic selfies today. Most will never suffer any consequences. Most of those women are also smart enough to realize that it's a virtual certainty that other men and women than the person they sent it to will get to see those pictures.  They can live with that because the risk of being publicly shamed, that "other girls will judge them", is very small.

What to do about it? There is nothing you could do.

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